Spring break is fast approaching, and everyone knows that Mexico’s Caribbean coast – a favorite destination for college students and families – got hammered by hurricanes Emily and Wilma last year.
What’s in store for travelers who want to go back to that favorite resort or villa? Travel-industry representatives, insiders who visited Cancun and Cozumel late last year, and some residents who hung in there and remain in Cozumel say it’s a mixed bag. Here’s what to expect concerning plane fares, hotels and appearance:
– Good: Plane fares
Tom Parsons, chief executive of Bestfares.com, says the new low-cost Spirit Airlines is driving down fares from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to Mexico and the Caribbean in general.
Earlier this month, major airlines’ fares to Cancun were running as low as $203 round trip before taxes and fees.
"Airfares to Mexico used to be $400-$500. These are great bargains," Parsons says, "When you can fly to Cancun cheaper than when you go to Memphis, Tenn., that’s a great buy."
A perusal of individual airline Web sites indicates you won’t immediately find these kinds of prices there – fares ran as high as $635 round trip. Talk to a travel agent, or try clicking on "Flexible dates" on Travelocity.com. That recently turned up the $203 round-trip fare to Cancun.
Beverly Maley, owner of World Class Travel in North Richland Hills, Texas, says charter fares also are good, but flights are filling up fast.
Most flights from major airlines were restored by January, spokesmen say.
– Not so good: Hotel availability and pricing
The hurricanes wiped out a lot of rooms, everyone acknowledges.
"There’s a lot of construction going on," says Maley. There’s a plus side: She says a lot of hoteliers are taking advantage of insurance money to rebuild older hotels.
On the other hand, who – including spring breakers with hangovers – wants to listen to hammers pounding every morning?
Maribeth Mellin, a travel writer for Fodors.com and many other publications who has traveled to Mexico for some 20 years, says the longest stretch of the hotel zone was "just battered by the storm. From the road, it doesn’t look too bad. On the water side, the beaches are gone. A lot of it is just boulder and rock, and the backside of those hotels just got blasted."
Mellin, who is based in San Diego, visited Cancun in late November-early December, so some improvements likely have been made since.
She says that by the end of January officials expected to have 13,938 lodging units (that includes hotel rooms and time shares) open, of the 27,822 total.
The lack of rooms means post-hurricane prices aren’t dropping.
"I think you’re going to pay a premium for the hotels, but you probably would pay a premium anyway because of spring break," says Parsons. He estimated that costs for a high-end hotel could run $300-$400 nightly.
Mellin suggests that when you book a room, make sure the whole hotel has been put back together.
"What a lot of these hotels are doing is opening some rooms," she says. "The sounds of construction were ever present."
She also says that travelers interested in spas should inquire about them, because many hotels are opening the rooms before the spas.
– Good: Restoration efforts
"The good thing about Cancun … they were fixing the appearance of the place so quickly it was incredible," Mellin says. They were digging huge holes in the median strip and planting new palms. This was the thing you were so struck by, was all the palms were gone."
Maley, who visited the first week in December, says some of the larger resort hotels such as the Riu Palace Las Americas and the Riu Cancun were in good shape when she was there.
– Not so good: Vegetation in general
Even though palm trees are being planted, the hurricane damaged Cancun’s tropical greenery.
"I think people need to be aware that … parts of the area are not going to look tropical – that takes time," Mellin says.
On the whole, most travel experts agreed that college-age spring breakers who might be less inclined to want peace, quiet and spa treatments might be fine in Cancun this year. Families, who probably wouldn’t go there at that time anyway, probably ought to wait until summer or find an alternate destination.
– Good: San Miguel
The center of the pretty town where cruise-ship travelers disembark was restored quickly.
"Debris has all been picked up. The roads that were destroyed have been repaved and the foliage, which at one point was nonexistent right after Wilma, it’s coming right back, says Raul Marrufo, director of the Cozumel Promotion Board.
Cozumel resident Carey C. Sutton, who owns and manages a rental villa there and runs the Web site www.cozumelmycozumel.com, agrees.
"The town of San Miguel is up and running and very merry. It has been for more than a month," she says.
Both say all the restaurants, bars and shops are open.
– Not so good: Hotel and air availability
"Once again, they had the same problem as everyone else," says Mellin, who visited in early December. "It was the big hotels that got hit hard."
Marrufo says that of Cozumel’s total inventory of 4,000 rooms, he expects 2,400-2,500 to be open by now and by March, he estimates 3,400 should be open.
Both say the smaller hotels and villas in town, not on the waterfront, are open.
"In Cozumel there are lots of perfectly comfortable, sweet, small hotels up and running," Mellin says.
Says Sutton, "This is a great time to visit Cozumel if you want to beat the crowds and be treated even better than usual. This is because, despite the fact that most of the beach clubs and all the in-town restaurants, shops, etc. are up and running and beautiful again, most of the out-of-town, oceanfront all-inclusives sustained a major hit, and many won’t be opening until March or later."
Rates at Sutton’s villa started at $630 a week for January-April, according to her Web site.
As in Cancun, prices are not going down, Mellin says, because fewer rooms are available. And visitors should book early for the same reason.
Maley says she, personally, would wait until May to visit the island.
– Good: Offshore diving
Cozumel is renowned for its diving, and deeper dives are still good.
Sutton says her husband has taken two dives since Wilma.
"And he’s a very pessimistic person. So I was expecting him to come back with dire predictions. This didn’t happen. He was very happy. My dive-instructor friends are greatly relieved as well. It seems the diving survived almost intact."
Marrufo says he hasn’t gone diving lately, but he understands that some of the deeper dives are even better than before because the current opened up caves that previously contained a lot of sand.
Cozumel Mayor Gustavo Ortega says the island got permission in mid-January to sink two old Navy ships, giving divers more attractions to investigate.
– Not so good: Shore diving and snorkeling
Marrufo says the shallower reefs, 30 to 40 feet deep, were damaged by the hurricanes.
Sutton says shore dives and shore snorkeling will not be the same "for quite some years."
Recommendations: Cozumel traditionally doesn’t cater to younger spring breakers, regardless of hurricanes. In fact, Marrufo says hotels there "pretty much don’t accept" them. But he says the island plans to carry on its annual carnival, similar to Mardi Gras. Ortega says the carnival will be in late February. He describes as "very family oriented." If you want to stay in a large resort, this may not be your destination. But if you don’t mind smaller hotels, Mellin says it’s worth a try post-hurricane.
BEYOND THE C’S
For those who want to try a tropical destination other than Cancun or Cozumel this spring, plenty of places were unaffected by the hurricanes.
Isla Mujeres, a narrow island less than a half-hour by ferry from Cancun, survived unscathed – "They got all of Cancun’s sand," joked Maribeth Mellin, a San Diego-based travel writer intimately familiar with Mexico. "They’re living proof that small is good."
The quiet island, with no all-inclusive resorts or malls, has long been a destination for travelers trying to avoid spring breakers in March, according to Fodor’s Mexico 2006.
More destinations suggested by travel professionals and others:
Playa del Carmen, south of Cancun, is in good shape, says Mellin, who visited in early December: "It looks like nothing happened."
On Mexico’s Pacific Coast, Puerto Vallarta is a good bet. Charter flights there, which normally start in May, began this month, says Beverly Maley, owner of a North Texas travel agency.
Also on the western side of Mexico, Los Cabos and Mazatlan are always popular.
In other parts of the Caribbean, airfares earlier this month were as low as $150 round trip to the Bahamas. Other possibilities with low airfares are San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Montego Bay, Jamaica.
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